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Future as Parable


By John Crowley, from a lecture delivered in June at MoMA PS1 as part of Triple Canopy’s Speculations (“The future is            ”) series. Crowley’s article “Madame and the Masters” appeared in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I am a writer of fiction whose pile of work includes two or three novels and some stories that picture future states of the world or travel through time into the future. None of the futures I’ve pictured are consistent with the others. Sometimes I’ve been asked whether I ever predicted any things that actually came to be, and since a lot of my science fiction was written pretty far in the past, some results are already in, and no, not so many. One: in a story first published nearly forty years ago, I described an insect-size drone capable of following a person and transmitting sound and image that could be archived. I called this thing a Wasp. The one that’s now closest to functioning is called a Bee.

The future is a parable, one that the speculator tells to himself; sometimes others are affected by it, though many who are affected by it mistake the parable for a plan or a promise or a vision. The Roman poet Horace, in his satires, tells the story of Tantalus, who is punished in the underworld by unending hunger and thirst. Nearby — but just out of reach — are food and water. He tries to dip his lips into a stream that forever slips away. Quid rides? Horace asks. What’s so funny? De te fabula. The story’s about you. A parable is a story told to you that is about you, or comes to be about you as you ponder it; the great parables can be pondered forever.

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